An Energy Transition without National Security Won’t Be “Just”

Want a truly “just transition”? Policymakers can bolster support for sustained climate action by integrating national security and human rights into existing “energy justice” frameworks.

The following Kleinman Center for Energy Policy Insight is based on a similar article that appears as the cover story for the May 2024 volume of the German-language climate law journal Klima und Recht,  published by the Institut für Klimaschutz, Energie, und Mobilität e.V., (IKEM) in Berlin, Germany. The German-language version of the below Insight can be found at the Klima und Recht website here or in the pdf publication here.

As policymakers around the globe grapple to confront the ongoing climate crisis, both through the development of innovative policy frameworks and practical technical solutions, the concepts of “energy justice” and a “just transition” have become central guiding principles in contemporary climate discussions. The energy justice construct has become central to policy planning aiming to balance the societal costs and technical realities of the shift toward a decarbonized global economy.  Similarly, concepts of a just transition have grown out of union movements in the United States over three decades ago calling for, among other policies, career training for workforces needing to move from carbon intensive industries to economic sectors driven by renewable clean energy fuels and technologies.

Viewed globally, these constructs are focused on the need to implement climate mitigation efforts that ensure that the burdens, effects, and costs of the energy transition do not disproportionately harm vulnerable populations, and that economic and occupational opportunities are shared equitably between leading economies and the developing world. The pursuit of social and economic climate equity within the just transition framework is not only a moral imperative. It is also a political necessity so that global support can be sustained long enough for the successful deployment of systems needed for a decarbonized future. We must bring technologies and infrastructure online so climate mitigation milestones are reached on a timescale commensurate with limiting global temperature increases as set forth in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Conspicuously missing from much of the focus on a just transition, however, is the recognition of macro-level national security and human rights realities. These realities must not be ignored by policymakers developing monodisciplinary climate solutions. In contrast, policymakers need to rapidly expand their just transition toolkits to ensure that some of the greatest challenges to energy security that were faced throughout the history of the hydrocarbon-driven economy aren’t allowed to develop in the emerging decarbonized energy economy. For example, addressing systemic issues ranging from energy poverty, to strategic corruption and kleptocratic manipulation of energy markets, to physical and cyber attacks on energy infrastructure, need to be recognized as being as fundamental to a successful energy transition as socioeconomic, equity-driven energy justice frameworks currently are.

After all, climate mitigation strategies that lead to energy insecurity via technical inadequacies or intentional infrastructure attacks, corrupt practices, or human rights abuses, will undermine public support for the climate transition. Populations that have suffered from the impacts of infrastructure damage owing to sources ranging from extreme weather events to physical deterioration of legacy infrastructure to cyber and physical sabotage attacks by state and other rogue actors may be less inclined to support the build out of renewable energy infrastructure at the scale needed for the energy transition.

Likewise, carrying on the tradition of authoritarian elite capture associated with energy developments is a nonstarter if true climate justice is to be achieved. In the era of hydrocarbon-based infrastructure projects, authoritarian leaders have wielded energy as a weapon not only via politically driven cuts, but also by projecting strategic corruption.  This includes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hiring of former senior European leaders to serve on the boards of Russian state-owned oil and gas enterprises or their subsidiaries, including notable examples from Germany, Austria, and France. Continuing this practice along with the development of, e.g., future clean hydrogen infrastructure schemes, could lead to public distrust in the means required for a successful energy transition, or an erosion of democratic resilience more broadly.  For this reason, leaders across the Transatlantic community should pass urgent legislation to outlaw this practice for good, such as a law that I have called for in testimony before both the U.S. Congress and the Canadian Parliament – the Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything (SHAME) Act.

And finally, technology systems and infrastructure required for the energy transition that directly or indirectly enable de facto slave labor—like forced labor abuses associated with solar energy infrastructure system production in the Xinjiang region of China—must also be banned from global supply chains using all relevant national and international legal authorities.  Any energy transition built on the backs of populations forced into slave labor is incompatible with constructs of energy justice or basic principles of universal human rights.

Trivializing the threats posed to the planet by unmitigated climate change is rightly viewed as unacceptable to climate leaders; so too should those same policymakers avoid trivializing global threats posed by authoritarian military actions or other “traditional” national security challenges.

What this means in practice, is that energy transition policies should integrate national security strategies directly into their existing frameworks for economic and societal equity. Too often, climate diplomats and policy practitioners have deliberately bemoaned acute national security challenges as if they were distractions from the work required of the energy transition rather than to recognize the abilities of national governments and regional coalitions to address multiple threats simultaneously—necessary to sustain both climate action while democratic norms are protected from contemporary authoritarian threats.

Recent political statements provide tangible examples of the false tradeoffs between sustaining Western responses to autocratic threats, and sustainable climate action. For example, in early March 2024, former U.S. Secretary of State and then the first-ever Presidential Special Envoy for Climate John F. Kerry, sat down for a farewell address with assembled international media at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., to take stock of his tenure as Climate Envoy for the Biden Administration, and to review the trajectory of global efforts to address the ongoing climate crisis. While Kerry largely was confronted with questions related to regional and global progress on climate mitigations, he received several related to issues touching on global security, including one focused on the impact of Russia’s illegal large-scale invasion of Ukraine on broader climate objectives.

Concerningly, while Special Envoy Kerry’s response did highlight the Russian Federation’s role as one of the worst carbon and methane emitters on the planet, he framed his response stating that “…if Russia has the ability to wage a war illegally and invade another country, they ought to be able to find the effort to be responsible on the climate issue.” To this he capped his statement by arguing that “…if Russia wanted to show good faith, they could go out and announce what their reductions are going to be and make a greater effort to reduce emissions now.  Maybe that would open up the door for people to feel better about what Russia is choosing to do at this point in time.”

Indeed, such a statement suggests an unseemly dynamic by which somehow Russia’s decline in global standing resulting from its blatant human-rights abuses and military strikes against Ukrainian civilians and critical civil energy infrastructure since February 2022 could somehow be avoided – if only it met its climate objectives.  Trivializing the threats posed to the planet by unmitigated climate change is rightly viewed as unacceptable to climate leaders; so too should those same policymakers avoid trivializing global threats posed by authoritarian military actions or other “traditional” national security challenges.

Divorcing the social imperative for climate solutions from national security and human rights in this manner can rapidly degrade broader public sentiment needed to sustain the energy transition. If taken to its logical ends, such a dichotomy could be abused by rogue and malign state actors to exchange perceived climate action for a reduction in response by the democratic world against threats like kinetic warfare and human rights abuses—a dynamic that may have already begun.

Global democracies must be vigilant to guard against such climate realpolitik, lest we usher in a world in the coming decades that is not only unable to successfully achieve climate action, but a world that would suffer from economic instability and war, owing to a significantly less secure geopolitical environment. 

Democracies don’t need to make a choice between pursuing the climate transition and pursuing national security imperatives against revanchist authoritarianism in the coming years—either a given climate policy is able to balance these two needs, or we need to go back to the drawing board.  Otherwise, true energy justice won’t be achievable, just when the world needs it most.

Benjamin Schmitt

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center and SAS
Benjamin Schmitt is a joint senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Penn. He is also an affiliate of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and associate of the Harvard-Ukrainian Research Institute.